York’s in the round configuration, in place until November, is ideally suited to the play and Dawn Allsopp’s simple and atmospheric set leaves plenty of room for the cast of nearly 30 to be deployed in epic manner. The fact that all except three are members of a community cast (one of two alternating) is certainly part of the problem, though, oddly enough, this is not because the amateur actors are inferior to the professionals.
The play concerns the performance of the Mystery Plays in 14th century York. Two gilds, two ambitious civic families, are pitted against each other and there are always topical themes of modernisation, cuts and imported stars. Then the word comes that King Richard II, fleeing from London opposition with Queen Anne, has arrived and met up with his favourite, the Earl of Oxford, previously banished. The aspirant burghers, of course, set out to win the Royal favour.
By casting the three professionals as the Royal party Burbridge and Forster imply that the play is about them whereas, at least in this production, they are among the least interesting characters, infuriatingly childish and charmless with painfully self-indulgent unfunny attempts at humour. Emily Pithon manages some dignity and humanity as the Queen, but, even though the historical Richard II must have been an extremely irritating monarch, Jonathan Race (Richard) and Michael Lambourne (Oxford) are hard to take.
I’ve no doubt that the use of an amateur cast has something to do with the slow pace of the production: cues are not always picked up with professional alacrity, but, more importantly, with a large ensemble the directors are constantly finding them things to do and ways to be noticed. So we have cavorting and dancing, mimed conversations, comic running and studied poses. In fact the actors (I saw the Masons team) are pretty strong on the whole, with well defined performances, if sometimes a little overdone, from both of the ambitious couples, a convincingly venal priest and a good ensemble of cast members from the painters’ gild. Always the most truthful actors in the cast, they manage a superb performance of their play of the Crucifixion “in rehearsal” (very straight, very moving), though the actual performance of the Mystery Plays gets a bit tricksy again.
Music (Christopher Madin) and costumes (Anna Gooch) are very effective, but the general ambience is rather too cosy and Merry England-ish.